Did you know there are “product defense” firms whose primary mission is to confuse the public for financial gain? These companies spread doubt about scientific findings so that tobacco companies can sell more cigarettes (which cause cancer), fossil fuel companies can delay climate action (to sell more oil), pharmaceutical companies can keep dangerous drugs on the market longer (to extend profits), and more. Every time a large financial interest is threatened by knowledge, these PR firms step up to the plate and do their bidding.
It is worth pausing to reflect on the fact that cultural studies have historically been separated from science. Yes, it makes sense to apply the tools of science to the movement of planets, properties of metals, and other physical things. But isn’t culture different? Isn’t it made of something other than physical stuff? This is a question that philosophers have grappled with since before the foundations of modern science were set in stone. And it has still not been fully resolved in the minds of quite a few contemporary thinkers.
As a quirk of the world we live in today, it just happens to be the case that the resolution to this age old debate is unfolding around us right now. You may be surprised to learn that the philosophical divide between science and culture is breaking down because so many of us are buying smart phones and surfing the net. Wondering what I’m talking about? Jump to the next section. Continue reading “Can Culture Really Be Studied Scientifically?” »
This article is co-authored with Michel de Kemmeter and published concurrently on his blog at Uhdr UniverseCity.
It is time to state clearly what is needed to live in a sustainable world.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
– Mahatma Ghandi
We have all heard these prophetic words. But exactly what do we have to do in order to be the change? Conversations about sustainability rarely focus on the personal elements that must be present in our everyday lives. They simply miss out on the importance of human thriving at the personal and social levels. In this post, we explain how to become a fully thriving human being. That way you can achieve the greatest fulfillment in your life while also helping humanity tackle our global challenges.
There are four steps that you will need to take in order to become fully alive. As you set off on this journey (or continue from somewhere midway), be sure to keep in mind that the single most important thing you can do is to know and love yourself. With that in mind, let’s dig in! Continue reading “The 4 Step Path to Human Thriving” »
I have long been a fan of TED Talks. They have inspired me to laugh out loud, to weep at the grand beauty of the cosmos, and to scratch my head and ponder deep assumptions that I once held dear. And so it is with grave concern that I write this post about the largely unnoticed threat to this invaluable cultural asset. TED is in danger and they don’t seem to know it.
The threat I speak of is memetic in nature. A set of hostile stories have been unleashed into the minds of the populace to fester, reproduce and spread with great efficacy. A set of memes have been created — initially as a form of retaliation, then for the shallow sake of self-promotion by the antagonists, and now the memes are taking on a life of their own.
Thanks to the ubiquity of mobile phones and digital infrastructure, it is now possible to achieve direct democracy at the global scale. We are already seeing inklings of its emergence in the rise of Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, and more recent activities in Egypt, Brazil, and Turkey. Yet there is a cultural force at play that may keep us from breaking away from centralized political power — the surveillance meme and its capacity to evoke fear and paranoia about open data systems.
Addressing global challenges in the 21st Century will require a fundamental rethinking of what it means to be human. We can no longer embrace the false doctrine of human separateness from the natural world. And nowhere is this more powerful than the intersections between biological and cultural evolution. Continue reading “Toward a Rigorous Science of Cultural Evolution” »
Many people reach out to me because they want to learn about the science of complexity. They ask what it is, how it works, and — most importantly — how they can apply it to global challenges confronting humanity. In those conversations I share what I have learned as a complexity researcher who specializes in the evolution of human systems. Realizing how useful this is for them, I thought I’d share some of it with all of you here. Continue reading “Applying Complexity Science to Social Systems” »
This article is co-authored by Joe Brewer and Lazlo Karafiath. They are co-founders of DarwinSF, a social impact company whose mission is to help good memes spread.
We all want to live in a world that supports life and promotes human well-being. Okay, do we really want to? That’s a critical question that can only be answered by taking a deep look at the attitudes, beliefs, and dispositions of people in the world. How many people out there believe the world is finite and precious? What is the proportion who see the End Times as a good thing? And what kind of research methodology would even create valid data that can answer questions like these? Continue reading “Applying Meme Science to Global Warming” »
This article is co-authored by Joe Brewer and Lazlo Karafiath
It’s almost the end of 2012 and a leadership vacuum continues to plague the nations of the world on our single biggest global threat. Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.
The urgency of this problem is clear when we think about the wave of wildfires, floods, and droughts that spread across the world this year and “freak” storms like Hurricane Sandy that wreaked havoc on New England earlier this month. Even the skeptics among us are increasingly nervous about offshore oil rigs going up on flames and pouring millions of barrels of precious crude into the open waters of the world’s oceans.
By contributing to this project, you will help spread the ideas that can challenge climate denial and the dogmatic beliefs of skeptics who have stalled out a global response to the greatest environmental threat ever to confront humanity. We are experts in the dynamics of culture—specializing in the study of memes, political frames, social networks, and brand marketing—with a passion for applying our craft for the betterment of humanity.
So if you are frustrated by the lack of forward motion on global warming, concerned about the world your children will inherit, and ready to see us all reach a global tipping point in awareness and all the collective actions that follow, this project is for you! Continue reading “Launching the Climate Meme Project!” »
I’ve organized some of my thoughts on the evolution of cooperation, how society forms organizations, and the key insights into human nature that will be needed to build a political pathway to global sustainability. Then I put them into a video:
Years ago, I took the road less traveled and set out to build an integrated approach to global change. I realized early on that the only way to address global climate change was to focus jointly on the complexities of the human condition and the coupled dynamics of Earth Systems. It was a telling observation that no academic institutions were equipped to support the broad transdisciplinary approach I sought to take, which is why I remain outside the university setting in pursuit of this goal to this day.
I am pleased to share that after 15 years of formal academic training and independent study, a clear set of guidelines has appeared that brings this ambitious goal within reach. A rigorous design science for building the pathway to sustainability is now available for use. Continue reading “An Integrated Approach to Global Change” »
A major consideration in the design of large-scale systems is that humans have to interact with them. Want to create a massive transportation system for your city? People need to take the bus or feel safe jumping on their bikes. Seeking to build a regional food system? Someone’s got to grow the food and deliver it. Someone else has to pick it up and prepare it for dinner. Every time a “grand vision” is put in play for changing the world, there is an implicit assumption that people will participate in the alteration or replacement of an existing system.
So how DO people interact with changing systems? That’s a question that has frustrated many a system designer. Engineers in the IT world know only too well how difficult it is to build software that people can use (or, just as important, that customers prefer over someone else’s software). Transportation policy experts have been baffled by the ways people choose to get around despite the design choices that went into the blueprints for that rapid bus system or congestion traffic lane. And political activists have been bewildered by the voting behaviors of so many otherwise intelligent people who behave so strangely when election season comes around. Continue reading “Design Better Systems by Questioning Your Theory of Change” »
So in the spirit of open innovation, I’m sharing my reading list. Check out this video to learn about more than 50 books you can pick up and start reading any time you want to. They have greatly expanded my understanding of human nature, morality, and the mind so that I can help design transition tools for global civilization.
This intellectual journey brought me to the point last year where I announced that I want to create a new field of research in Human-Centered Design for Global Change. You can learn more about it by following these links:
Please let me know if I can be helpful to you in your quest for more knowledge. It’s been incredibly fulfilling to unlock so many secrets about humanity and the dynamic universe we are a part of. Enjoy!
Have you ever wanted the god-like power to create entire worlds? Wondered what it feels like to destroy a universe with the flick of your hand? Then become an accountant. That’s right, you heard me. The Great Creators (and Destroyers) of reality are the people who define what is worthy of measurement.
Current wisdom says that the amount of global economic activity is the total of Gross Domestic Production (GDP) for all countries in the world. This number tells us how much value is created each year through productive activity. And yet none of this activity would be possible if children were not born, raised by devoted parents, and educated by society. The most essential “productive” activity performed by humans is parenting. And what is the net economic value of parenting? Zero. Zilch. Nada. It doesn’t exist as far as economists are concerned.
And how do we know this? Because it doesn’t appear on the accounting books! Being a mother has no economic value — at least not according to the accounting schemes used by macro economics today. This sweeping power to make massive value-creation disappear is wielded by accountants every single day. Continue reading “Want the Power of a God? Become an Accountant!” »
It is increasingly clear that human beings are more than simply self-interested rational actors. We are profoundly moral, immensely social, and deeply political beings who often “lose ourselves” in social causes. A friend of mine who studies social psychology at the University of Virginia, Jonathan Haidt, recently gave a TED Talk about this that captures my thoughts very well:
A massive body of research now confirms that human beings are wired for empathy, tend to cooperate with one another through shared social identities, and mediate our socialness through layers of semantic meaning that arise in our conceptual systems — via metaphors, semantic frames, culturally shared cognitive models, and more.
I was recently interviewed by Bhavani Prakash at Eco Walk the Talk about cognitive policy, large-scale behavior change, deep history, and the transition to sustainability. We explored the importance of cross-disciplinary thinking for addressing global challenges.
Here’s an excerpt:
So what we’re seeing now with these global social movements, is an acceleration of change that goes back at least 3 decades. In a global sense, we can see the rise of the environmental movement, which started about a hundred years ago and catapulted in the 1960s with Rachel Carson, and what’s called the modern environmental movement. We’ve seen the beginning of the collapse of the empire with post colonialism, from the independence of India, the rise of nation states, and social democracies. Going back 70 or 80 years, fairly quick and big changes have been happening. Now it’s much faster still.
Let’s take ‘Occupy Wall Street’ – it has been incredibly successful, in a short period of time. It has been only with us for a few months and it has already changed the way that people talk about the economy and social issues all around the world. Now maybe Occupy Wall Street won’t lead to the changes that we need, but the scale of impact would have been very difficult to predict. Imagine you were sitting and watching the world in the beginning of August 2011, you probably wouldn’t have anticipated that something like Occupy Wall Street would have come into being and have such an effect in the last few months.
That is an indicator of how quickly change is coming and the fact that change is coming quickly tells us that we are in the middle of one of those phased transitions. Change is happening very quickly because the entire system is reorienting itself. I think there’ll be a much bigger, deeper change in the next few years.
I’ve been watching the Occupy Movement from a distance these last several months, intentionally standing back so that I might observe the larger web of patterns shaping its unfolding path. In the early weeks of the movement, I wrote about the swarm behavior through which OWS grew quickly — seemingly out of nowhere — from a small group of activists in New York City to its global presence in thousands of locales. Then I stepped back and waited to see what the future might hold for the movement.
And now, as we enter the new year, I would like to share how I see the changing landscape of strategic action as informed by my knowledge of political frames and complex pattern formation. The ideas presented below are meant to help shed light on the underlying forces of change that have given Occupy its core strengths up till now and to prepare change makers around the world for larger impacts in 2012 and beyond. Continue reading “Strategic Frames of the Occupy Movement” »
Sometimes what we think we know is more consequential than what we actually know. As we nestled into our beds on the night of September 10th, 2001 most of us did not know that we would awaken to a terrorist attack that would unleash a decade of global unrest. Few among us foresaw the meltdown of financial markets in late 2008. And many were unable to believe it possible that we would witness the ascension of an African American to the White House that same year.
The world is a profoundly complex place where subtle dynamic patterns shape the trajectory of everything from personal relationships to emergent social order on a planetary scale. How do we grapple with this complexity when the consequences of our ignorance are so severe? This question cuts to the heart of our sensibilities about knowledge and reason. What we don’t know is often shrouded in a mask of presumed knowledge — we tend to think we know much more than we actually do. Continue reading “Cultivating Innovation When The Future Is Unknowable” »
Ever wonder how it came to pass that a global economic system was put in place that is so harmful to human well-being? In this video, I share the historic origins of rational choice theory (also known as the theory of rational action) and describe how cognitive science ultimately revealed its foundational prejudices. Hope this is helpful to you!
You can learn more about my work on the applications of cognitive science to political, economic, and philosophical issues at Cognitive Policy Works.
Oh and please forgive my mis-statement about the law of commutativity 6 minutes 30 seconds in… I meant to say that if preference for A is greater than B then preference for B cannot be greater than A. Psychology research in the 70’s showed that this math rule is violated by framing and priming effects.
The 20th Century was an era of specialization. Many new fields of research were created that separate one domain of knowledge from another. The 21st Century must be an era of synthesis and integration. The challenges set before us are incredibly complex, unfolding as seamlessly interconnected patterns that span the globe.
As a social innovator who specializes in human system design, I have spent many years gathering useful knowledge across disciplines. And now I am setting out on a path to integrate two vast domains into a rigorous framework for strategic action — earth systems research and cognitive science.
The video above explains what I am setting out to do.
Essentially, I want to address the compounding problems of systemic risk that propagate across interconnected systems. Over the years I have observed that a vital missing piece is the role of human beings in the unfolding patterns of change around us. How we think about the world, what we are able to see, and what we believe all shape our responses to economic and political instability, natural disasters, and societal transitions during periods of turbulence. Continue reading “Creating A New Science — Human Interface with Global Change” »
Addressing 21st Century challenges will require that we understand how human beings interface with global systems. I’ve dedicated the last 10 years to the study of Earth System Science and the cognitive sciences to shed light on the Great Blind Spot for Sustainability. This month I am offering a series of workshops to begin training change agents for the planetary transitions that are unfolding around us.
Video recordings were made of the first session on “Getting the Big Picture.” (Thanks to Kelly Gerling for filming this!) I’d like to share some of the material we covered with you.
The two videos below offer an introduction to the application of cognitive science to solving 21st Century global challenges — exploring the significance of psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, and linguistics and their implications for the transition to sustainability. Continue reading “The Great Blind Spot for Sustainability” »
If we are to tackle the major challenges of the 21st Century, we’ll need to address the cultural, political, and psychological drivers of our collective behavior. Tomorrow I’ll give the first in a series of workshops on How to Bring About Large-Scale Behavior Change. I believe this to be one of the most important topics that we can grapple with together. The reason for doing this is simple:
Advancing threats to humanity outpace the intensity and scale of behavioral response
Are you someone who wants to help address the big global challenges looming before us in the 21st Century? You will need to prepare yourself for a long endeavor if you’re working on climate change, sustainable cities, social entrepreneurship, or global justice. There are important choices to be made and vital life skills to learn in order to be an effective change agent across your lifetime.
I’ve been preparing a workshop on How to Bring About Large-Scale Behavior Change that I’ll give in Seattle later this summer and will emphasize the psychology of resilience in the midst of ongoing turbulence as a vital part of the learning tool kit. Some of this material may be useful for you in your social change efforts so I am sharing it here. After all, it’s going to be a bumpy ride and you’re going to need to manage the change process effectively if you want to be happy, healthy, and effective over the long haul. Continue reading “How to Be A Resilient Change Agent” »
To change the world, we need to persuade one individual after another to change their behaviour.
This can seem like a daunting challenge, but there is a large body of knowledge out there about how to do it. We at Sustainable Seattle think this is one of the most important challenges facing all of us, so we’re working to share this knowledge with as many people as we can, with classes and handbooks. Continue reading “Help Create Tools for Social Change!” »
In this video blog I reflect on the role of cognitive science for making our philosophies of human nature and society more empirically responsible. These thoughts were inspired by reading books by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in particular Philosophy in the Flesh and The Meaning of the Body.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about where theories of human nature have gone astray and how new discoveries in neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, and anthropology can help us be more systematic in testing our assumptions about what makes economic and political systems work for the betterment of humanity.
Please add questions or comments below and let’s discuss!
I have looked squarely at the most pressing problems confronting humanity — global climate change, mass extinctions, resource depletion, increasing toxicity of our soils, over population, and more — and still I am hopeful. How can this be?
The answer is that human beings are incredibly resilient creatures. We are capable of love and beauty unparalleled in the animal kingdom. And we are wired for empathy.
While studying cognitive science, the cross-cutting field of research dedicated to understanding the human mind, I learned something that has inspired me greatly. The human brain has within it a set of circuits called mirror neurons that enable us to simulate and re-enact the experiences of others. I can watch someone eat chocolate and feel stirrings of desire for the subtle combination of bitter and sweet. And I can also look upon the hungry and feel a grumble in my belly. This foundational discovery was made by neuroscientists in Italy in the 1990’s. And it offers the possibility for salvation in the midst of crisis. Continue reading “Will Compassion Save Humanity?” »
For all you change makers, young and old, I offer this advice:
If you want to change the world, study more cognitive science.
When I left grad school almost a decade ago with a strong desire to address climate change and trained as a climate scientist, I knew that another physicist wasn’t going to make it or break it. The fundamental challenge was and remains large-scale human behavior. Human civilization is on a crash course with oblivion if we prove incapable of designing our urban landscapes, political systems, and market economies with foundational understandings of:
Evolutionary Psychology :: Our deep biological legacy of primal emotions, herding behaviors, brain structures, and more — all that makes us the kind of animal we are today;
Cognitive Semantics :: The human mind is fundamentally a “meaning-making machine”. Changing our cultural narratives will require that we understand (a) how language is processed in the brain; (b) the role of frames and conceptual metaphors in constructing meaning from our bodily experience; and (c) why emotions shape how we reason through the coupling of neurological processes with language comprehension;
Cognitive Neuroscience :: To fully understand how human behavior works, we’ll have to familiarize ourselves with the different ways our brains process fear, disgust, hope, despair, and the stresses of personal change;
Cognitive Anthropology :: Grasping the universals of humanity across cultures will demand that we combine ethnographic research with experimental studies in psychology. This is how we’ll finally understand the nature of belief in religious communities, the adaptive fit of various cultural ideals with sustainable living, how to collaborate across cultures, and much more. Continue reading “Want to Change The World? Study Cognitive Science!” »
Last year I gave a workshop on How to Bring About Large-Scale Behavior Change that set out to accomplish an ambitious goal — to demonstrate that all of the essential knowledge for designing large-scale social change campaigns exists and can be taught to practitioners from many different backgrounds.
The workshop was such a success that I was asked to give it again, this time as a 3-Part Series breaking down the materials into a set of tools and activities that tailor the content to the particular challenges faced by attendees. And I realized that this provides an excellent opportunity to share this knowledge more widely with change makers all over the world. So I have partnered with Sustainable Seattle to launch a crowdfunding campaign to fund the creation of a Designer’s Manual for Large-Scale Change.
Earlier this year, a wave of populist uprisings swept across Northern African and the Middle East. Regimes fell, new governments were put in place, and questions lingered about why some countries initiated revolutions and others did not. Of particular note was the observation that income disparities are greatest in the United States, and yet there is no sign of revolution on the horizon.
The American people have lost faith in our cultural and political leaders. Public confidence in governing institutions — corporations, the mainstream media, the federal government, and banks — is at an all-time low. Living wages are scarce and corruption is widely recognized in the electoral process. And the final bulwark of democracy fell last year with the Supreme Court decision with the Orwellian name “Citizens United” that granted corporations unlimited access to influence elections through direct advertising.
So why haven’t we seen a revolution in the United States? What drives a country over the edge? How can analysts mark the trends that convey a structural civil unrest that culminates in political transformation? There are excellent frameworks for the stages a social movement goes through (like this one), including a tipping point where new behaviors go mainstream and shift the scales. But what precursors tell us that such a tipping point is nearby? Continue reading “The Key Ingredient for Revolutions” »
In this video blog I explain why it has proven so difficult to incorporate insights from the cognitive and behavioral sciences into the sustainability movement. Barriers exist in the idea adoption process due to the threatening nature of this vital knowledge.
We have to recognize and overcome issues like this as time grows short and the global need for strategic engagement and design only increases. Failure to do so will result in sustainable solutions not being implemented in time. And the consequences are just too serious to allow this to happen.
Addressing the biggest challenges like global warming, political corruption, and a broken economic system will entail significant amounts of large-scale behavior change. As Change Makers we will have to learn the basics of the cognitive and behavioral sciences in order to design campaigns that result in significant changes in social norms, community priorities, and personal behaviors. Continue reading “5 Things to Make Large-Scale Behavior Change” »
Public Speaking :: Innovation Design :: Integrative Research k I am a social visionary, innovation strategist and interdisciplinary scholar who weaves together brilliant people and ideas to create integrated solutions t0 the world’s most pressing challenges. My passions include design for social change, the architecture of social enterprises, creating large-scale behavior change, and incubating social ... Continue reading »